As part of the 50th anniversary remembrance of the assassination of President Kennedy, it seems good to pay particular attention to the JFK Library.
Like all modern presidential libraries, it was constructed with private funds and then maintained and operated by the National Archives and Records Administration.
Franklin D. Roosevelt established the first one. The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 encouraged subsequent Presidents to do the same, even though at the time the President’s papers were still considered private property.
And so on September 20, 1961, less than a year into his administration, Kennedy began consultation with the Archivist of the United States to begin plans for his own library. He planned to establish it, following Roosevelt’s model, near Harvard University. A month before his final trip to Dallas, he selected the site.
Designing and building the JFK Library
As so far described, the JFK Library was on a fairly normal schedule. The most recently opened presidential library, that of George W. Bush, opened five years after he left office. Since Bush and the National Archives had to collect and organize electronic records and other formats that didn’t exist in the 1960s, Kennedy might have seen his own library open in less time than that had he lived (assuming he would have responded more quickly to problems with his chosen site).
Of course, he didn’t live. Kennedy’s family and close associates began to make plans for a memorial in December 1963. Their first order of business was to decide what kind of memorial to build. They decided that the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum would be the only memorial.
According to established custom, a private non-profit corporation took on the responsibility of raising funds and constructing the library. As I wrote earlier, a presidential library is more museum and archive than what people ordinarily consider a library.
The family decided that, in addition, the Kennedy Library would include an educational institute, closely allied with Harvard University. Kennedy had had a lifelong interest in bringing the academic world and the world of public affairs closer together.
The Kennedy Library Corporation raised nearly $21 million. Much of it came from the “usual suspects” of political associates, foundations, interest groups, and so on. But millions of ordinary citizens from around the world, including school children, contributed to the effort. In 1966 the corporation presented an $8 million dollar endowment to Harvard to create the Institute of Politics.
Meanwhile, the General Services Administration organized all of the archival material and opened up the first portions of it for researchers on October 1, 1969—a reasonable estimate for when it might have opened if Kennedy himself had been defeated for reelection and personally supervised it.
Unfortunately, it had to open in temporary quarters. The building had not yet been constructed. In fact, construction had not even begun. Among the problems that caused the delay, some Cambridge residents opposed Kennedy’s chosen site, fearing that it would cause excessive congestion and disruption in the neighborhood.
Only in 1975 did the corporation abandon the Harvard site and select a new one close to the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Whatever architectural plans had been developed for the old site would not be workable. A newly appointed advisory committee visited all of the existing presidential libraries, including by that time Lyndon Johnson’s.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis selected I. M. Pei as architect and personally supervised the preparation of what would be displayed in the museum portion. Groundbreaking for the complex of buildings began in June 1977, and the JFK Library and Museum finally opened in its permanent home in October 1979.
John F. Kennedy Library & Museum exhibits and displays
The JFK Library is the only modern presidential library for which the former president himself had no input into what the public would see when they visited. Kennedy’s assassination became one of the pivotal events of the late 20th century. It has excited far more interest than anything Kennedy actually did as President.
The family and eventual library staff had no interest in constructing a monument to Kennedy’s death. In fact, until this 50th anniversary year, very little related to the assassination has been on public display. A small exhibit of never before displayed artifacts of the funeral opened on the day of the anniversary, including
- the flag on the president’s coffin
- the saddle, sword, and back-turned boots carried by the riderless horse that followed the coffin in the funeral procession
- a green beret that a serviceman left at the grave site to honor Kennedy’s championship of special forces
- photographs and video from the funeral
- an editorial cartoon of a tear-streaked Lincoln in his memorial
- correspondence between Mrs. Kennedy and the widow of the police officer killed by Oswald on the same day
Why now? Mostly because by this time most of the nation’s population has no personal memory of that awful day. Up until now, the museum has resisted any thought that Kennedy was memorable primarily for being killed.
Instead, the family decided in dozens of meetings that the museum would focus attention on a vibrant life. As Patricia Kennedy Lawford has said, “People should leave the Library feeling that this was someone they would have liked to know.”
Although presidential libraries receive some federal funds for maintaining the archives, they do not receive anything close to their operating expenses. They are dependent on a steady stream of visitors and sales in their gift stores. The Kennedy Library has changed its displays multiple times over the years of its existence and will continue to do so in order to remain fresh and encourage visitors to come back.
The current funeral exhibit is scheduled to run through February 23, 2014. Whether the museum then begins to display more artifacts from the assassination than is has before or returns most of them to storage, count on it to continue to highlight the excitement and optimism that the nation has never regained since that awful day.
Here is a clip of a Kennedy campaign jingle from 1960. It lasts a little more than a minute. Can you imagine anything like it, for a political candidate or anything else, today?
About the JFK Library / JFK Library
JFK Library to open exhibit about president’s funeral / David Abel (Boston Globe)